David R. Weiss – May 6, 2023
This essay is a conversation across time. I began my March 8 post, “Giving Up on Church for My Children,” with this line: “Perhaps every decision has multiple forces, tiny and large, stretched out behind it. This one surely does.”
Well, this post begins on September 14, 2022. I never completed it, but it feels important to come back now, fill it out, and publish it, because it explores one of the seismic shifts happening inside me that proved to be a precursor to my decision to “Give up on church for my children.”
I’ll start with the original September material (so you can get a sense of how these thoughts first took shape almost eight months ago), and I’ll note where I begin with fresh writing.
September 14, 2022—
Strange. For the past several weeks since Mom died (August 24), a multitude of people have been kind enough to check in with me to see how I’m doing. I’m fine. I’m not pretending to be okay; I’m simply not overwrought by grief. I think I lost so many pieces of Mom over the past years as dementia stole whole swaths of her from the rest of us, that my grief began and stretched out for years. Maybe at some point a finer more focused grief will find me.
For now, Mom’s death has unleashed an avalanche of existential restlessness. And I am wrecked. Or, maybe, it’ll just be the boxes I’ve been living in that get wrecked. I hope so.
I’ve been in therapy for a while now. Processing trauma and depression (both have roots running back to my teen years, with fresh additions of both in adulthood) and exploring how the dynamics of my mostly happy childhood have unhappily conspired to undermine some of my best hopes for adulthood. Oops—never saw that coming. Of course, it’s a long, complicated tale. In a sentence: the course of my life has been shaped and misshaped by a dysfunctional dance between my academic-intellectual excellence and my unconscious yet powerful pattern of linking … knotting … chaining (dammit!) my self-esteem to the external approval that came easily and abundantly. Not unlike Pavlov’s dog’s, my public performance became paired so consistently with positive reinforcement, that I fused the two together.
Thinking back to last week …
I am at L.’s for a counseling session on September 7. Recently back from Mom’s funeral. Trying to catch up on life and feeling the demands press in from all sides. I am stretched.
But, for now, I am settling in. Eyes closed, L.’s voice leads me through a short full-body check-in, encouraging me to listen for the whispers of my Self in the bodily sensations that are also finding their place in the room. In the quiet. In the stillness. The rocking chair (no proverbial couch in L.’s office) is firm, and, by now, familiar. We—the chair and I—move in a slow rhythm, initially negotiated between intent and inertia, then settling into something like a gentle wave. It is a good feeling, but as I rock, an inner restlessness rises within me. Asking me to trust a still deeper goodness. I resist. I relax. I’m in.
I never know what I’m listening for in these first moments. I sense stiff muscles, weary bones, occasional tingles and tickles. Does L. really think my assorted appendages bear messages? Do I? No matter. It works. Having “settled in,” I open my eyes, and she asks, “What comes up for you today?” Something always comes up. As often as not, what comes up is a bit messy. Not wholly welcome. Appearing as if at the invitation of a Self that is as yet distant kin.
Today the words speak themselves before I think them—an incantation set loose in the room. “I want to unbox myself.” L. smiles. “Tell me more.”
And this captures what I said …
I’ve become keenly—uncomfortably—aware of all the boxes I place around myself. The ways I’ve limited who I am and who I desire to be in order to maintain the approval of others. The ways I conspire with outside expectations to box myself in. And, in order for my truer Self to expand and flourish, I need to unbox myself. Which is scary.
Not least, because I’ve done it so well, that very few people suspect how hard I am working at being someone else than myself … for their sake. Well, for my “mistaken sake,” to keep the external approval rolling in.
It hit me while driving home after Mom’s death. Mom barely knew me over the past year. She remembered my name; somedays, my wife; never my kids, my work, or my writing—not really any of my life. She didn’t really know me at all anymore. And yet—for her sake, and mine, and Dad’s, and my sisters’ sakes—I wish I’d gotten home to see her (and my immediate family) far more often in what turned out to be the last year of her life. I didn’t.
Box 1. Instead, I limited my trips home … lest I inconvenience—no, less I disappoint and risk losing the approval of—those I work for at church. It’s only a part-time job, but with hours scattered across the week, it’s impossible to get to Michigan City (eight hours away) without missing a couple of days I’m scheduled to work. I write that now with a measure of disbelief.
I placed the approval of others above presence to my mom and family.
I understand, many of us are limited by the demands of our work schedule. But this particular work generates only marginal income and is NOT central to who I am. I should have quit my job (or insisted on redefining my schedule) rather than place myself in a box that left Mom and family mostly on the outside.
It’s not a disaster. Mom forgot every visit within hours of my leaving. I don’t “blame” anyone but myself. And even myself, I only blame if I don’t learn from this moving forward. Still, it’s a searing insight to realize how beholden I’ve been … even as an articulate, successful adult … to outside approval. “Entangled” fits.
But that’s actually the least significant box, because that bit of work doesn’t matter all that much in the big scheme. There are other boxes, and they’re interwoven. (Box 2: climate. Box 3: church. Box 4: theology/faith.)
[That’s the end of September 14, 2022 material.]
Six days later, still stinging from these insights, I resigned from my parttime job at the church. But I gave twelve weeks notice, until mid-December, so as not to disrupt any fall programming that my parttime position supported. It was, as I look back, my weak attempt to curry one last round of approval on my way out the door.
Fast forward to May 5 and I’m going to fill out—then rip up—those last three boxes so I can be done with this and move on.
Box 2. Climate. I’ve steeped myself in climate reading since 2016. When I returned to this theme (which I’d first explored almost two decades earlier in grad school), I naïvely assumed I would add my voice to the growing chorus of those working on climate issues—and that, even if only in the nick of time, we would indeed “save the planet.” Sadly, I no longer regard that as possible. But, not wanting to risk the approval of those many friends who still want the last line of every alarming paragraph I write to come back to a note of hope, I’ve worked hard to keep the public display of my personal views on the climate crisis just this side of alarmist so as to remain in a box labeled (even if only in fine print) “respectable.”
Bottom line: the planet will (eventually) be fine. But we will not, nor will many of our companion creatures whom we continue to sacrifice to idols of consumption and convenience. So, this is the work that will occupy the rest of my life: how do we live with purpose, when we can no longer realistically live with hope? Believe me, that’s a heavy lift. Our world is collapsing, and while there are things we can do to lessen the impact (the single biggest of which is to radically simplify our lives), there need to be people working patiently and with focus on what collapse means for our humanity and how we might safeguard some of the character and culture that we’d like available for those who will endure the worst of what is yet to come. That’s my work. And I cannot do it faithfully so long as I’m beholden to the approval of others.
So, tear that box up.
Box 3. Church. Insert “Giving Up on Church for My Children” here. Clearly, one big part of tearing up this box is the urgency of ecological-social collapse and my driving desire to speak in words that might reach my children. But there’s a bit more to it than this. Because as much as the “church” box keeps me away from my children, it affords me security and approval from my past. But a security and approval that not only hinders my work now but hinders as well the authenticity that must be the foundation of what I’m doing. The Christian church is no longer the right place for me to be.
So, tear that box up, too.
Box 4. Theology and faith. This is the box I’ve held most dear. It’s where my intellectual and artistic gifts—heart and mind—intersect to shape my most prized identities as theologian and writer. The identities themselves are profoundly true. But so long as I express them inside a box bounded by the expectations and approval of others, the whole of me and my gifts cannot show up. And now they have to. Too much is at stake to play it safe any longer.
Hell, too much was always at stake. It just took a climate crisis and my kids to make me choose risk over security.
Obviously, I’ve hardly been a “preserve-the-status-quo” theologian. I’ve rather ransacked the attic of Christian theology to find kindred spirits over the years. I’ve found myself drawn to theology from the margins, often hearing in these voices the call for justice that most resonates with my own sense of the sacred. I’ve often told others over the years that I managed to remain Christian thanks to the company I found in the attic and at the edges. (See “Tipping Points” and “Doubtful” for more on this journey.) And that was true.
Nevertheless, I have also silenced more than my share of intuitions along the way. My sense of God is so thin as to be vanishing. My view of Jesus is so wholly human as to deny him any divinity that I don’t also share. My sense of ethics is so thick as to eclipse any interest in an afterlife. And yet, with my sense of self tightly tethered to outside approval, I’ve spent most of my adult life carefully contributing to a conversation in a tradition where I still feel boxed in.
Last July I was unnerved by an article in Christian Century, “When my dad killed God.” In it, Don Hamilton wrote about the backlash his father, William Hamilton, experienced in the mid-60’s after he became associated with “death of God” theology. Despite its name, this theology was less about “killing God” than making honest theological sense of the human capacity for evil—a capacity often wrapped in religious language (still today!). “Death of God” theologians pressed toward an ethic that prized the precarious pursuit of compassion apart from any divine guarantee of success. Don Hamilton wrote that his dad “never stopped being a Christian, with Jesus as a companion on his journey.” But he became the target of hate mail and death threats, eventually losing his teaching position and a host of friends. Although written with genuine warmth, it was not a cheery remembrance. Rather, a costly one.
Ironically, what unnerved me was that, already while reading it, I regretted that I’d never dared to be honest enough to spark that much controversy. My own theological inklings over the years—captured in my sporadic journaling—are testament to questions no less piercing than William Hamilton’s. To suppositions no less daring than his … no less faithful(!) to the legacy of Jesus. But I’d never dared to go public with mine. So how were my kids ever to fondly recall my courage?
Then, this past spring, I began exploring the Unitarian Universalist tradition as a faith community that might offer me more “breathing space.” I read a bit of early UU history … and discovered a whole other attic of kindred spirits. From the 16th to 19th century, these first precursors to the UU faith were impassioned voices at the edge of the Christian tradition. They questioned doctrines that felt too small for God as sensed by their reason, experience, and pursuit of justice. The story of their bold commitment to unbounded authenticity (which eventually led them further and further afield from Christianity) has been … bracing for me to read. Because, up to now, my commitment has been to an authenticity bounded by the Christian tradition, even if mostly at the edge.
It’s time to tear that box up, too.
I cannot and do not discount those who find the Christian tradition a fruitful space in which to do their work. But I also cannot and do not discount any longer the sense within me, that my own theological wings might’ve unfurled in even deeper and more gracious ways had I allowed myself to venture beyond the tradition of my upbringing sooner. I have poured energy—endless and creative, prophetic and persuasive—into dialoguing with a tradition increasingly not my own.
And now that my own children, as well as the wider world, need my wings unfurled as fully as possible, it is time for me to pour my energy—endless and creative, prophetic and persuasive—into dialoguing with authenticity. In community with others, yes. But beginning with an authenticity that is foremost my own.
I don’t yet know entirely what form that will take, but I’ve already told my kids to be ready to write that remembrance. And once I clear away all these torn up boxes I intend to get to work.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.